So, you’ve done the hard work of writing your short story, editing it to the best of your abilities and sending it out to a publisher. Then, a few weeks later an e-mail pops up in your inbox: thanks but no thanks. “So what went wrong?” you may be asking yourself. Why was my submission rejected?
First off, you’re in good company. This year was one of my best in terms of output with 45 submissions and 4 acceptances, but you’ll notice that even then I’m only at a 10% acceptance rate. That’s a lot of ‘no’s. So many that I default assume that a submission e-mail is a rejection before I open it. (And statistically I’m right.)
But anyway, we’re not here to sulk or boast, we’re here to talk about what you can control and how to improve. So let’s look at three reasons why submissions are commonly rejected and how to keep yourself in good standing.
It Wasn’t a Good Fit
Ooh, tough break, kid. Probably the highest tier rejection; your piece was good, but not quite good enough to make the cut. This can be for a number of reasons:
- Your story might not have worked well with the others that were already selected
- Your story might’ve been similar to another one, and they chose that one instead
- If this isn’t for an anthology, it could just be a timing issue – I got a rejection once because my story featured a unicorn in the opening scene and “we’ve just seen too many unicorns as of late.” (For the record: the unicorn only appeared in that one scene but hey, their fault for not reading past the first page.)
How do I know if this is me: Sometimes a publisher will be kind enough to offer feedback or tell you how close you got it. Maybe you got a second-round confirmation but didn’t make the final cut. You can also check out the anthology to see what did make it in and see if your piece might not have worked well with the other content.
How do I fix this: Check out other publishers. Your best bet with a good story that didn’t make the cut is to send it somewhere else, preferably somewhere where your style and voice fits right in. Be sure to give it a cursory read-through when you get it back to see if it has any glaring errors or if you need to revise the content for the next publisher. Then, send it back out there and try, try again. At any rate, don’t despair. Most stories will get rejected a few times before someone picks it up. In the meantime, make sure you’re reading the publications you submit to. It will give you a better sense of what styles they like and which pieces you should send them in the future.
It Needs Work
So your story has been out to a few publishers and hasn’t gotten any takers. It might be time to swallow your pride and admit that this one might need a serious revision before you send it back out there. If you want to explore what might not be working, I suggest going back to the Content Checklist and make sure that your story doesn’t have any major issues with any of the three core story components:
- Pacing: does it drag? Is it confusing?
- Characters: are they interesting? Do I care what happens to them?
- Conflict: did anything meaningful happen? Was it a satisfying conclusion?
How do I know if this is me: Publishers will rarely tell you why a piece isn’t working for them, but if you go awhile without any notes whatsoever it might be time to solicit some feedback. Do you have over five rejections? Over ten? When was the last time you revised it? Read the stories the publisher selected and compare them to the story you sent them. Are you writing on the same level as the competition? Check that above link for more details on common content issues if you think this might be you.
Another note: it’s possible that if you have an objectively good story and you’re just aiming too high to compete. Are you submitting to only pro-rated publishers that pay $0.05 per word or more? Are they the kind of publisher who only prints established authors, winning Hugos and Nebulas year after year? I’m not saying don’t submit to them, aim as high as you please, but maybe curb your expectations a little. The competition is that much fiercer at the pro level.
How do I fix this: Revise. Start there. You know that nagging feeling in the back of your head that says this flash fiction piece really ought to be expanded but you don’t want to because that’s a lot of work? Listen to that feeling. Same thing if you have a 10,000 word epic that drags in the middle. Learn to kill your darlings. You’re going to have to learn how to make those hard edits if you want to be published.
If you’re having trouble figuring out what’s wrong with the story, make friends with some writers on Twitter. Join a writer’s group through MeetUp, or even ask someone who knows something about what makes a good story. If I have a story that I know is good but has problems, I will send it to a publisher who routinely gives out feedback just so I can get their professional opinion. And no matter what kind of feedback you get, be open minded. Sometimes the best thing for a story is a complete re-write. It can be tedious, but you have to put your ego aside and do the real work to whip it into shape.
Lastly, if you’re aiming for the big leagues, you might want to try a less competitive publisher with semi-pro pay rates. Build your skills in the minor leagues while you work up some credits and keep trying for those pro-rated markets. They’re tough to get into, and there’s no shame in missing the mark. Even successful authors get rejected; it’s a numbers game. That said, keep revising. You’ll never consistently get into the pro markets if you don’t sharpen your skills.
You Done Goofed
I really debated skipping this one, but it shows up so often on the list of publisher’s pet peeves that I figured it was worth a nod as one of the top three reasons for rejection. To recap, this is for all those submissions where you messed up:
- Sent in content that didn’t fit the submission call
- Didn’t follow the word count limits
- Ignored the formatting (either on purpose or because they stuck it somewhere obscure on their website)
- Either did not read or assumed that the rules did not apply to you
How do I know if this is me: Did the rejection come back so fast you wonder if they read past the first paragraph? They might not have if you didn’t follow the rules. To be fair, maybe you missed some rules on accident, but this is more of a problem with carelessness than content. And if you deliberately ignored the rules in order to stand out from the crowd? Hoo boy. Sit down, we need to take you back to square one to explain basic etiquette and how not to get yourself blacklisted among publishers.
How do I fix it: Read the directions. This is an easy fix, guys. If you thought you could get away with being careless, you can’t. If you thought ignoring the rules is clever, you’re probably going into the reject pile before they even open your file. We all make mistakes, but you’re only going to improve your acceptance count if you learn from them.
So there you go! Got any tips on how you improved your own rate of acceptance? Questions about how to revise? Post ’em in the comments and share with the class!